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The cake you bake on the morning of your sons eighth birthday
party is strangely slanted to one side. You check the oven rack
but it looks perfectly straight. You wonder uneasily if maybe the
house is canted on its foundation. Your children could be growing up with one leg longer than the other. Maybe you should call
someone to come check out the house, but that is a problem for
another day. Right now you need to decide what to do about the
cake. You could cut the top off the cake to level it, but its chocolate with vanilla frosting and a lot of crumbs would show. Best to
just frost it as is and hope the slope isnt that noticeable.
The theme of todays party is magic, and you opted for the
basic rectangle cake or trapezium, as the case may be and
you bought a little plastic magician cake decoration, which you
stick on the cake right now with a flourish.
Just at this moment, the birthday child runs into the kitchen.
He stops when he sees the cake. Why is the man skiing? he
asks, pointing to the magician figurine.
Long story, you say. Happy birthday, darling!
He hugs you and you lean down and kiss the top of his head.
Can I have waffles with strawberries as a special birthday
breakfast? he asks.
You would love to make him waffles with strawberries and

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sit in the warm morning sunshine of your kitchen and tell him
about the day he was born, and how when he turned twenty-four
hours old, you cried because you never wanted him to get any
But just then the doorbell rings with the balloon delivery.
You ordered fifty helium-filled balloons but what actually arrives
is a helium tank and fifty uninflated balloons.
The stoned-seeming teenager who delivers them assures
you that its really easy to blow the balloons up, and perhaps it
might be under other circumstances, but with the help of two
small excited children (the doorbell woke your younger son) it
is nearly impossible. Eventually, you blow up all the balloons and
tie most of them in bunches around the house and yard, and even
wrap blue crepe around the oak in front of the house. You do not
ask yourself how many of the little boys invited to the party will
notice these decorations because you do not want to know the
answer. This is merely something you do for childrens birthday
parties, something that is always done. For you and countless
other parents, it is just part of that dance you do.

While your husband mows the lawn and your children are mesmerized by Charlottes Web on the TV, you heat up the iron, put
on your iPod, and settle down for a pleasant thirty minutes of
making T-shirts for the goody bags.
Earlier, you had designed and printed out eleven T-shirt
transfers that say Thanks for helping us celebrate! along with
an illegally downloaded image of a magicians hat. Yes, you know
that T-shirts are unnecessary and a little over-the-top, but it was
the one bit of party-planning you actually enjoyed doing.

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However, when you iron the first transfer on, you realize that
you forgot to reverse the lettering when you printed them and
now its backward on the shirt. Fuck me, you say, much more
loudly than you had intended because of the iPod.
What happened? your younger son says in a bored voice.
The birthday child doesnt even bother to inquire.
So instead of the relaxing half hour you had envisioned, you
have a hectic ninety minutes of reprinting all the T-shirt transfers, rummaging through your childrens dressers in hopes of
finding a plain white T-shirt, removing a very old spaghetti-sauce
stain from said T-shirt, and finally ironing all the transfers on.
When you emerge from the laundry room, hot and sweaty
and irritable, you find your husband sitting on the couch, holding the birthday child, who is sad because Charlotte died at the
end of the movie. (You own the book but have a bad habit of not
completing things and evidently he wasnt prepared for this.)
You sit down on the couch next to them and reach out tentatively to touch your sons back. I know its hard, you say. He
says nothing and buries his head against your husbands chest.
A rush of tenderness sweeps over you. I cant believe he was
born eight whole years ago, you marvel to your husband.
He looks at you, and then down at the top of your sons head.
Eight long years, he says.

Your children are starting to get cranky from hunger and you
havent been to the store recently except to buy party food, so
you and your husband load them in the car and go to McDonalds.
Once there, your husband gives the boys a small lecture
on the cost-benefit analysis of ordering a Happy Meal with an

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inferior toy in it versus saving the price of several Happy Meals

and buying a real toy from the toy store. They listen pretty tolerantly (theyve heard it before) and then insist on Happy Meals
Your husband has a salad, and you have black coffee and fold
miniature origami birthday hats for the goody bags. The birthday
boy saw this on TV and you bought the origami paper and he did
exactly two before losing interest. You have read somewhere that
origami is supposed to have a soothing effect on the mind but,
personally, you find all these little folds just maddening.
Your children are playing with their junky toys and eating
their Happy Meals and seem, well, happy. They do keep opening
their mouths to show each other chewed-up food, though.
You sigh and say to your husband, The road to manners is a
long one.
Yes, he agrees, and possibly you cant get there from here.
Your children finish eating and run off to the play area, leaving behind a mess of crumbs and paper that looks like something
you might find under a park bench after a bad storm. You force
your husband to fold a paper hat, but either his thumbs are too
big or else hes pretending ineptitude to get out of doing any
You are about to point out the unfairness of this when theres
a wail from the play place. You realize your children are fighting,
rolling around on the floor, actually engaged in a brawl, though
with each other, thankfully. Is it possible to sink any lower than to
have children so ill-behaved they stand out even at McDonalds?
You and your husband separate them, saying repeatedly that
you dont care who started it, and march them out to the car. And
so you drive home, the boys not speaking to each other, you still

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annoyed about the lack of origami help, and your husband tapping out work e-mails on his BlackBerry.
But you must remember: this is an extremely typical preparty
family atmosphere, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise
is lying.

Time to fill the goody bags and you realize that you have either
miscounted or forgotten someone, but you have eleven guests
coming and only ten goody bags. A quick scour of the house
reveals that the only other paper bag is one from Victorias
Secret. It is hard to imagine what will be worse, trying to persuade some little boy to accept a pink goody bag when all the
other ones are blue, or having to see the parent of the Victorias
Secret bag recipient at school.
You wonder if your childrens main memories of you will be
your inattention to detail. Like last year when your older son had
to take cello lessons at school and you neglected to buy the special cello chair and spike holder, so at the spring recital, he had to
go onstage with a ceramic bread bin and a bathmat.
But just then your younger son comes in and sees what you
are doing. Oh, Mommy, he breathes. Can I have the pretty bag
with the stripes? Please?
Of course you can, you answer, and he runs off happily.
Maybe they are too young to hold a grudge, or too immature to realize the ramifications of certain actions. Or possibly
they have just had limited exposure to mothers who do this kind
of thing effortlessly. (Youve been pretty careful in your friend
selection.) But whatever the reason, right now, for the moment,
for a little while longer, you are still okay.

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Youre on your way to the laundry room to look for the camisole
you normally wear under the low-cut shirt youve just put on
when the doorbell rings.
You answer and a middle-aged man who looks like a suburban
serial killer peers down the front of your shirt and says, Hello,
Im Manny the Magician.
You experience a moment of profound hindsight, in which
you see the wisdom of booking a little more in advance so you
dont have to settle for third-rate childrens entertainers.
Hello, you say. Come on in. Youre a bit early.
Manny explains that hes gotten the time of the party wrong
but you suspect hes early because he doesnt have anything better to do. Hes a mild-mannered, slope-shouldered, balding man
wearing bifocals and carrying a tattered duffel bag that presumably holds all his magician supplies. So far he doesnt seem very
magical or thrilling, but even worse, when you take his jacket
you see that hes wearing a football jersey with the number 16
on it.
Now, it so happens that youve had fifteen sexual partners in
your lifetime and seeing Manny the Magician standing there in
your front hall labeled number sixteen fills you with an uneasy
sense of predestination. Is this where that bright and shining corridor that was your twenties and thirties has led you?
Manny looks at you expectantly. I need a place to change,
he says.
You lead him up to your bedroom not ideal in that the bed
looks like a gypsys tent made of different-colored lingerie tossed
about in your search for the one camisole you still cant find.
Also, your diaphragm case is on the nightstand along with a copy

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of Alien & Possum: Friends No Matter What. But you reckon Mannys
seen worse and anything to get him out of that shirt.
Still, you are unprepared when he emerges five minutes later
in a full-length pale blue gown and peaked hat. He looks like a Ku
Klux Klan Grand Wizard. It would be comical if it were not so at
odds with Mannys worn face and the bifocals. In a different way,
it makes you feel just as awful as the football jersey.

Because you are not insane, and because you do occasionally plan
ahead, you have hired a teenage babysitter to help today and she
arrives just on time. Her name is Rebecca and she is a redhead
and just beautiful with that almost-blue, transparent skin that
redheads can have, her hair like a lick of flame.
You and she set up an obstacle course in the backyard, using
plastic cones, streamers, and some car tires. A group of trained
monkeys could memorize it in less than a minute, but it will probably prove too complicated for a dozen overexcited little boys.
You look at Rebecca as she kneels on the grass, stapling
streamers to the ground, and it occurs to you that although you
know she is beautiful, possibly Rebecca doesnt know this yet.
Also that its not really a kind of beauty appreciated much by
teenagers. You wonder suddenly which table Rebecca sits at during lunch and do the other girls save her a place or does she have
to get there quickly, does she have a boyfriend, is he a senior,
does he genuinely like her or is he using her for sex, is he out of
her league, will he break her heart? You have a sudden longing to
be in high school again, where you would know the answers to
all these questions, and everyone else would know, too.

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The first guest to arrive is Kenny, a Korean kid, and as soon

as the birthday boy sees him, his eyes get very big and he says,
Oh, shit! Kennys allergic to chocolate and I forgot to tell you,
You suppose you should be upset by the swearing, but its
fairly obvious where he picked up that habit, isnt it? Besides,
Kennys mother speaks barely any English and youre pretty
sure she didnt catch that. You are far more concerned about the
You give Kennys mom a big reassuring smile and as soon as
Kenny is inside with the door shut, you ask, Is it true about the
chocolate cake?
Yes, Kenny says.
How allergic? you ask. What happens if you eat it? If its
just a headache or something, you might be tempted to let him
deal with it.
Hives, Kenny says. And trouble breathing.
Okay, probably best not to let him deal with it. Are you allergic to anything else? you ask.
Truly, it would be simpler to take Kenny into the kitchen and
show him the four or five food items you actually have in stock,
but he has already run off toward the backyard, his shoes making
little squeaks against your floor.

After that, kids start arriving very quickly, dropped off by parents who are presumably excited about having two whole hours
to themselves, the lucky bastards.
At one point you answer the door and there is a man youve
never seen before and a vaguely creepy teenager. You are about
to tell them that they must have the wrong house and that youre

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really terribly busy, when the man holds out his hand and says,
Im Calebs father. Thank you so much for inviting him.
Caleb is the new kid in class and you invited him so he wouldnt
feel left out, but you havent seen him before. Or rather, you had
seen him before, but didnt realize who he was. He is nearly as
tall as you and seems to have the beginnings of a mustache. Hes
in second grade? You have your doubts about that, but, more
important, you have your doubts about Caleb, who is giving you
a slow sinister smile. It may have been a while, a long while, since
you were in school, but you still recognize this kid for what he
is: a troublemaker.
The last kid is deposited by a harassed mother balancing a
fussy child of breast-feeding age on her hip. As soon as the child
sees you, she holds out her arms longingly, and glancing down,
you realize that you never did locate the camisole that goes under
this top. Which means that all the parents so far have had some
pretty intense cleavage exposure when you leaned down to welcome their children.
You suppose this will cement your reputation, though what
that reputation is, youre not quite sure. Sexy earth mother or
disorganized floozy? Really, it is difficult to say. And also way too
late, possibly decades too late, to change it now.

The beginning section of the party goes relatively smoothly, or

would, if not for Caleb. The first thing he does is come on to
Rebecca the babysitter, leering at her and staring her up and
down. She gives you a nervous look and you make a sort of helpless gesture, but privately, you are appalled. Realistically, how
many times could Caleb have been held back in second grade?
Three, at the most?

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The children all totally ignore the obstacle course and run
around, kicking soccer balls to one another until Caleb boots all
the soccer balls over the hedge into the neighbors yard, where
you will have to collect them apologetically tomorrow.
Your husband works in corporate security and you wonder
if he could have Calebs father investigated as a security risk and
transferred to some remote location.
The only official party game you have prepared is a storebought piata in the shape of a donkey that you hung from a tree.
The boys form a line, and youre smart enough to put Caleb last.
Then you tie a bandanna around the first childs eyes, give him a
broom handle, and let him take a whack at the piata. And so it
goes, with most boys managing to at least hit it, though no one
breaks it.
Then Calebs turn comes and though you tie the bandanna on
carefully, he must be able to see slightly because the first thing
he does is poke Rebecca in the chest with the broom handle. She
gives a little shriek and you quickly spin Caleb by the shoulders
until hes facing the right direction. You had known, deep down,
that he would be the one to burst the piata, but you werent
quite prepared for the intensity of his attack. Before you or your
husband can react, he has not only broken the donkey open, but
pulled it right off the tree and is whacking it to bits.
By the time you wrench the broom handle from his hands,
the piata is lying on the ground like roadkill, and Kenny is so
traumatized that hes reverted to the level of a three-year-old and
can only stand over the broken piata, saying, Donkey okay?
Donkey be okay?
You take Kenny by the hand, scoop up a handful of piata
loot, and walk over and sit with him on the porch. The rest of the
children are squabbling over who gets the most candy and toys,

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but you leave Rebecca and your husband to sort that out. You
put your arm around Kenny and distract him by pointing out all
the nice candy, a teeny plastic wristwatch and a whistle, and oh,
look, a tiny little SpongeBob.
If you were the kind of person who recorded things in notebooks, the first thing you would note under Birthday Party
Improvements would be Dont invite Caleb. But youre not
that kind of person. In fact, youre the opposite and tend to make
the same mistakes over and over. With your luck, your son will
decide that Caleb is soooo cool and you will be forced to have
destructive playdates with him for a long time to come.

Its time for the magic show and you call all the children in and
settle them in a group on your living room floor. When Manny
enters in all his pale blue splendor, your younger son says Lady!
in exactly the same fearful whisper as the first time he saw the
Easter Bunny at the mall and said, Mouse! But everyone else
seems pretty unimpressed, and Caleb asks him to move out of
the way so they can see the television.
So Manny has to explain that theyre not going to watch television, theyre going to have a magic show, and he begins. You
are not sure youve ever seen a public performer of any variety,
even the dog obedience school teacher, with less charisma than
Manny. Its depressing, actually, and you wish he were home
with his loved ones instead of traipsing about suburbia, humiliating himself.
He does some fairly lame magic tricks, including the jumping
paper clips and the four aces. If the children were even a tiny bit
older, they would surely be heckling him.
As it is, they are very restless and at one point a small out-

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break of poking disrupts things. You nod to Rebecca and she

goes and sits in the middle of the group. Caleb smirks at her and
moves so his leg is touching hers. Shes visibly nervous but the
show goes on.
Finally, Manny announces, with no irony whatsoever, that he
is also a balloonologist. He produces a whole bunch of long rubber balloons and says each child can have one and he, Manny, will
blow it up and twist it into whatever shape the child requests.
Now, you would think that pretty much any child would have
the sense to request something impossible, like a Ferris wheel
or a human skeleton. But obviously eight years of TV and computer games have atrophied their brains, and they ask for easy
stuff theyve seen before, like giraffes and teddy bears. When its
Calebs turn, you close your eyes and pray silently that he does
not request a sex organ or a murder weapon, but all he wants is
a dachshund, proving he has even less imagination than everyone
With that, the show is over and you release all the kids, who
run into the backyard, whacking one another with their balloon animals. Manny begins packing his magic supplies and your
husband leads you into the kitchen and asks you two questions:
What do you think Manny is wearing under his robe, and where
did you find him?
To the first question, you answer, I dont want to think about
it. To the second, you answer, Liz Beaumont recommended
him. She said he was gentle and playful. But now that you think
about it, Liz may well have been talking about swimming with
the dolphins in the Florida Keys, and the blame for this is yours,
and yours alone.

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The rest of the party goes by in a blur, much like your wedding day. In fact, now that you think about it, childrens birthday parties are pretty similar to your wedding day: you pay too
much attention to meaningless detail, you overinvest in certain
decisions, you see your friends but dont really get to interact
with them, you end up incredibly stressed, and in retrospect you
would certainly do it all much more simply. You dont remember
looking at the clock constantly during your wedding reception
and thinking, Thank God, less than an hour till this is over, but
quite possibly you did.
You had toyed with the idea of serving Kenny a baked potato
with a birthday candle stuck in it, but in the end a search of the
basement freezer unearthed a frozen Krispy Kreme doughnut
(circa 1980). You defrost that and Kenny seems happy with it, or
at any rate, happy enough.
You also have ice cream to serve with the cake, though you
bought Neapolitan by mistake, and every single kid wants only
one flavor, not all three, so you have to do some careful scooping. Thank God you have Rebecca to scurry back and forth with
all the plates and utensils, because your husband is being no help
at all.
Annoyingly, he is drinking a scotch on the couch and reading
The Wall Street Journal as though this party has nothing to do with
him. As though you, and a mentally unstable magician, and a
redheaded babysitter, and a dozen little boys about to embark on
a sugar high, were just some raucous group in a restaurant that
he will be careful not to go to again.

After that, the birthday boy opens his presents. You have schooled
him to say, Thank you! I love it! no matter what the present is,

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but you havent quite gotten around to that with his little brother
yet. So as each gift is revealed, your younger son is right there to
say, Cool! or We already have that! or He doesnt like Legos
But you dont really mind because finally the parents are coming to pick up the guests. Although you do not understand, honestly you do not, how they can be twenty minutes late picking
their child up. Is it possible that they dont know how youve
been silently beseeching time to speed up for the last two hours?
Can they not look back on their own childs party? Have they no
compassion, no mercy?
Calebs father returns to pick Caleb up and you notice some
tension in his face when he asks, How was the party?
But you know the unwritten rule: unless blood was actually
shed, you pretend everythings fine.
It was great, you say. I hope Caleb had a good time.
Caleb saunters past you with a self-satisfied smile that makes
you want to slap him. You strive for a superior expression, but in
reality you probably just look sort of scared and relieved.
After hes gone, the birthday boy leans against you and says,
I dont like him. His breath smells like ketchup and he snapped
the heads off all our G.I. Joes.
Ah, your soul mate. You lean down and kiss his neck, even
though he squirms away from you. Truly, there is no one like

Finally, every last guest is gone, every goody bag taken. Manny
has changed back into his street clothes, once again using your
bedroom. Weeks later you will discover that a black bra is missing and wonder if he took it, but it is also entirely possible that you

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left it on the Cub Scout camping trip, given how desperate you
were to get back to civilization.
Your husband pays Manny, raising an eyebrow at the price,
and then seeing Manny drift back toward the dining room table,
he says, Let us walk you to the door.
You are profoundly grateful to him for this because you suspect Manny is the type who would happily hang around forever,
hoping for an invitation to supper. And that would be more than
you could bear right now.
But when you all reach the front hall and Manny shrugs into
his jacket, he turns to you without outstretched arms and says,
One more thing, I always get a hug before I go.
This is so grim, so unexpected (and yet, really, so hideously
predictable), that you are caught entirely flat-footed. Your mind
has gone blank with revulsion and you cannot think of a single
excuse, so you step forward and let Manny hug you.
It could be worse. Manny doesnt smell bad, or whisper obscenities, or pull a condom magically out of your ear. He does
give you a letchy little squeeze, though, which means you will
now hate him forever instead of just feel sorry for him. And then
its over.
Good-bye, Manny says, turning to shake hands with your
Wheres my hug? your husband asks, and so you laugh when
you might have cried.

You and Rebecca pick up all the dirty plates and forks, all the
wrapping paper, all the streamers from the obstacle course, trash
from a hundred other unidentified sources, and the mutilated
piata. You wonder if perhaps you should take a photograph of it

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so you can appear on some documentary about career criminals

in Calebs later life. But into the trash bag it goes.
You pay Rebecca and give her a huge tip, even though she
looks quite refreshed and happy. She is probably going to go off
and make something of the rest of the day while you collapse in a
heap. You suddenly long to say, It is autumn; not without / But
within me is the cold. However, you are probably considered
eccentric enough without going around quoting Longfellow to
teenagers. Instead you say, Thanks, Rebecca, you saved my life
today, and she leaves.
Meanwhile, your husband has fed the children frozen waffles
and applesauce, and he pleases you even more by showing you a
bottle of chilled champagne and saying that you and he can order
a pizza as soon as the boys are asleep.
You would like to put the boys to bed right then and there,
but they are filthy and sweaty, streaked with dirt and tears and
ice cream. They look like street urchins from some country
UNICEF is collecting money for. It doesnt help that one of them
is even chewing on a crust of stale bread. You really, really must
go to the store.
So you run the bath and they get into it happily, chattering
and squirting each other with teeny little water pistols that were
part of the piata booty.
You sit on the floor near the tub with your back against the
wall and close your eyes. You hear the sound of water splashing
on the floor, but you dont say anything. Its just water, right? Itll
dry. Even when one of the children shrieks that he has soap in his
eyes, that it stings, it really does, he cant stand it, that he needs
a towel right now, you dont move. You just cant.

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But finally, miraculously, your children are in their pajamas,

teeth brushed, hair combed, snuggled in their twin beds, with
you sitting between them in the rocking chair. All that stands
between you and champagne now is the bedtime story.
You start reading a chapter of The Cricket in Times Square but
after only a page, the birthday boy starts sobbing quietly.
Whats wrong? you ask, closing the book on your finger.
No answer, just more sobbing.
You glance at your younger child and see that he is so weary
he appears to have fallen asleep with his eyes open. You wonder
if you will have to shut them for him. But no, he gives a slight
jerk, like someone feeling a raindrop, and blink, blink, hes gone.
The birthday child is crying louder now. You sigh. You think
of the champagne, the pizza, your husband waiting for you downstairs. Whats wrong? you ask again.
My partys over! he wails.
Yes, and may the gods delay the next one a hundred years,
you think. Aloud you say, But it was a great party.
I know, but its over!
You sigh again. Honey, dont cry.
I cant help it, he says miserably.
We cant have parties anymore if youre going to cry when
theyre over, you say. Do you want me to keep reading?
He shakes his head against the pillow.
You should put the book away but you are so tired that you
just let it fall to the floor and move so youre sitting on the edge
of the birthday boys bed. You hold his hand.
I was so proud of you today, you say, stroking his arm. I
could tell you were eight years old by the way you thanked your
friends for coming to the party and the way you shared your
presents with your brother.

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Actually, you didnt notice either of these things, but you are
too tired to dredge your memory for true examples. These will
do. He stops crying and lies quietly, listening. You are getting
so grown up, you say.
You dry his face with your sleeve and then kiss his cheek and
whisper good night.
Im still sad about the party, he whispers back.
You dont answer. You go out in the hall and turn on the
night-light that lights the way to the bathroom. You glance back
in and see that he has thrown off the covers, which strikes you as
an annoying, melodramatic act, but you let it pass.
Happy birthday, honey, you say quietly.
You should sit with him until he falls asleep but you really
cant stand the thought of further party discussion and anyway,
you figure he is too tired to stay awake more than another minute
or two. You start down the stairs. You wonder if he realizes that
right now, at this instant, you love him more than ever, that you
could not love him any more than you do.

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